In How To Take Stunning Underwater Photos
Using Inexpensive Point and Shoot Cameras
Part One: Some Favorite Tips
By Scott Fratcher
Waterproof cameras that once cost thousands of dollars have been replaced by small modern versions that look and feel just like any other pocket camera. For documenting, fishing, skiing, snorkeling, diving or even recording an underwater video these inexpensive cameras are the perfect solution. In this article taken from “How to Take Stunning Underwater Photos Using Inexpensive Point and Shoot Cameras” (Kindle, Nook, Apple) I discuss how to take amazing underwater photos with inexpensive point and shoot waterproof cameras.
As skipper of a charter boat, one of my main joys is taking people snorkeling to photograph the brilliant coral. Invariably they are disappointed with the results. “Well, what do you expect for a few hundred dollars,” they might mutter, tossing their camera aside. In truth, it’s normally not the camera’s fault. Every photo in this article was taken while snorkeling with an inexpensive point and shoot camera good to ten meters.
Standard photo concepts fail underwater
Framing a shot, positioning the light source behind the camera, keeping the camera still and knowledge of depth of field all seem to fail during underwater photography. Underwater light quickly fades, and the colors visible underwater are ever-changing depending on cloud cover, atmospheric haze, water clarity, water color and depth.
Note: Underwater photography strives to present a view of undersea life that can’t normally be seen, even by the diver. For example, the extreme close-up ability of modern cameras can focus on areas too small for a human eye behind a foggy mask to see.
Lesson number one: stabilize the camera
In order to take clear, brilliant photos, any camera must he held still. This can be nearly impossible underwater. While the current is sweeping the snorkeler sideways, the fish has already taken cover.
The first trick to holding still is having buoyancy control. That means having the right weight-to-flotation ratio so the snorkeler hovers at his chosen depth. Try jumping in the water and have someone hand you a three-pound weight belt. Inhale completely and you should float to your forehead. Exhale completely and you should almost sink. If that doesn’t happen, try more or less weight. Once you have your needed weight worked out, you’re ready to start.
One method to maintain smooth motion is to descend headfirst into the current, making a long sweeping dive while looking for a photographic opportunity. Square off on the subject and take a distant photo, swimming slowly to let the camera reset for the next photo. Take a second and even a third close-up photo before ascending.
You might also dive down and grab a rock (not coral or any other living thing). Let the current swing your body around and you’ll instantly become stable. With luck, the fish you were trying to photograph will not have been scared away and you’ll have the lung capacity to wait for the right shot.
Stop the action
A camera can capture a moment where incredible displays can be witnessed. In one photo I took, an octopus is in the midst of a color change. His tentacles are still blue while his head has changed color to match the sandy background. In a nutshell, our goal in underwater photography is to present the usually unseen image.
Zoom or macro
Close-up photos can be taken by one of two methods: extreme zoom or macro. If the water is rough or cloudy try macro, but if the subject is a little dangerous, such as sharks, then try the zoom. Cloudy water needs close-up shots and less flash, while clear water can benefit from zoom shots and flash.
Learn to use macro
Many amazing underwater photos are taken in the extreme close-up. This setting on the camera is called macro. The standard digital camera lens will focus to about a half metre. To focus closer, to say 100 millimetres, switch the camera to macro mode, and to focus to ten millimetres use super-macro mode.
Learn to make this mode change without looking at the camera. For example, my Olympus Stylus Tough needs the “down” button pushed three times, then right once. By knowing this sequence I’m able to quickly change camera modes so I can take the progressive close-up photos that we’ll talk about soon.
Close-up photos reveal detail snorkelers would never normally see even if they were diving on the spot themselves. Through photography one can instantly see how a Remora attaches itself to a whale. A close up of a Christmas Tree Worm reveals not only an interesting formation but also its mechanics of breathing and catching food.
Progressive close-ups are great for slide shows and screen savers. The first will be what most divers would see swimming past. The next photo begins to show detail not normally seen first hand, even taking a close look in the water. The third photo is an extreme close-up taken on super macro. The final photo brings out the “wow factor” on a slide show as nobody could see this detail even if they dove with reading glasses!
Study your subject
Reef fish are creatures of habit that live in food chains and quickly recognize a predator. Many swim up and down a set area of the reef, grazing and protecting territory. Grouper will sit on the bottom without moving till they think they have been discovered then they start to fidget. Octopuses sit still and change color to mimic rocks. By studying habits we can position ourselves for the perfect photo.
I watched while a puffer swam into the coral, bit and retreated to chew. By timing the advance and retreat I was able to look through the viewfinder, set the zoom and catch the fish with his lips retracted and his teeth exposed in the act of biting, making a much more interesting photo.
Decide on what you want to the photo to say
The two photos showing rays were taken on the same snorkel. The first photo shows giant mantas swimming toward the diver — a good “wow” photo. The second photo shows a swimmer clowning around in the oncoming path of the giant mantas, adding a bit of humor to the otherwise natural moment. Now choose the photo that expresses the mood you want.
Puffer fish are cute, fun and nearly fearless. They will often sit perfectly still in front of the practicing photographer allowing plenty of time to adjust camera settings. Try to take photos from slightly overhead, and forward of the puffer to show the fat, teardrop comical body.
Sunny choppy days are more difficult than overcast days
Hard, reflective light such as on the seabed comes from sunny days with wind over the water. Overcast days with dispersed light are much better for taking photos. If surface light is reflected, use a “fill flash” to soften the shadow affect.
Scott Fratcher of Aphrodite 1 is a marine engineer (commercial with MCA CEC - Engineer OOW Unlimited/Y4) and RYA Yachtmaster (200-ton sail/power/ocean/commercial).
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